Singling out the right seedling to become the matriarch, or “mother plant,” for a full-fledged cannabis-growing operation is a lot like a family competition, says Wendy Bronfein, marketing director for Curio Wellness in Lutherville.
“You plant all these seeds and it’s almost like having a family with a bunch of kids,” says Bronfein. “They all came from the same parent, but they’re all different.
So which plant proves to be, kind of in a survival-of-the-fittest sense, the strongest and best-looking plant to … become the mother?”
Bronfein, 37, and her father, Michael, CEO of Curio Wellness, have watched their cultivation team perfect this process since they first began growing cannabis last year.
Curio, the business they co-founded, has been awarded a trio of state licenses to cultivate, process and dispense the drug. The company is among 14 licensed growers across the state and 102 dispensaries that have opened or are still setting up around the state.
While cannabis is Curio’s business, the company preaches a holistic approach that goes beyond the drug.
“We start from the place of a medical cannabis patient,” Wendy Bronfein says. “You’re usually kind of at your wit’s end, you’ve exhausted all other options, and so in that world … other natural products and treatments like acupuncture and massage, types of therapeutic yoga, are very complementary.”
Curio’s growing and processing facility includes 45,000 square feet for cultivation and 10,000 more for processing the flower into extracts, tinctures and other forms of cannabis.
It includes nine “hygienic cultivation chambers” — also called ”flower rooms” — that as of early March were producing 16 different strains at once, according to Bronfein.
A separate 6,000-square-foot dispensary a half-mile away on York Road opened recently, offering cannabis for sale to registered patients as well as a sizable classroom for yoga, informational sessions and more for patients and non-patients. Plus there are four treatment rooms designated for acupuncture, massage, skin care and other treatments.
Curio’s general manager Brian Sanderoff, a licensed pharmacist for 25 years, says cannabis is “another tool to add to the toolbox,” which also includes other herbs, nutrients, vitamins and alternatives to traditional Western medicine.
“What we’re looking to do is create wellness,” he says. “I’m not looking to just sell cannabis. I’m looking to help meet every single patient where they are, and help move that dial toward wellness for them.”
Bronfein says her family entered the cannabis business by “happenstance.” A Baltimore native who grew up in Pikesville attending Beth Tfiloh Congregation, she was living in New York when Maryland enacted its medical marijuana law in 2013. She sent a link about it to her father back in Baltimore.
“It was just a throwaway. I definitely didn’t think we’d be sitting here today,” she says.
In June of 2014, she went to Colorado to conduct some research at a National Cannabis Industry Association convention. Upon her return home, the Bronfeins “had a meeting around the kitchen table as a family” and opted to proceed with pursuing a business, she says.
They consulted with doctors and scientists — including in countries like Israel and Canada with “more robust” research and medical cannabis industries than the United States. They also met with South Baltimore advertising agency Planit in June 2015 to map out a marketing strategy.
The Bronfeins were more than prepared to apply for licenses by the time the state’s application process opened in fall of 2015. They submitted their application that November.
They didn’t learn they had been pre-approved until August 2016, and finally received full licensure a year later.
It’s been mostly smooth sailing since then. Bronfein says they avoided many of the neighborhood-level tensions and skepticism experienced by other area dispensaries by being “very forthcoming with the community.” That included reaching out to Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach (R-3rd), who connected them with community leaders. They shared plans for their headquarters, explained how they would mitigate odors and keep their facilities secure, and even invited community members to tour their buildings.
“It’s funny, you can’t smell anything in and around our building, but we happen to be next to three food businesses that have coffee, nuts and popcorn,” Bronfein says. “It’s like, ‘Well you can’t smell us, but you can smell everybody else.’”
The biggest challenge in getting their operation going, Bronfein says, has been “tuning the building” for their growing and processing facility.
“A lot of our stuff uses computer systems in order to feed and water and maintain moisture and CO2 and air in the room,” she says. “So kind of just all the calibration of turning that on and automating the system to its optimal settings.”
But the preparation paid off. In December, Curio became the first grower in the state to distribute cannabis to its partner dispensaries. (Their facility is the largest of Maryland’s operating indoor cannabis growers, Bronfein notes.)
With more than 70 employees, she says one of Curio’s biggest goals is to create a dependable family business culture. That includes offering livable wages, 401(k) plans and tuition reimbursement to employees.
“I’ve never worked anywhere where I felt like the whole family was invested in it, so I don’t know that I have that reference point,” she says. “But I hope that from our employees’ standpoint, that that’s sort of a value point for the company. … We’re entrenched in the idea of building this company here, and it being homegrown.”
Ethan McLeod is senior editor of Baltimore Fishbowl and a freelance writer covering Baltimore and Washington, D.C.